Archaeological mystery: Has the ancient Elamite text from Iran been deciphered? | science | In-depth science and technology reports

Diamonds and squares with dots and dashes – These geometric figures were discovered by French archaeologists as early as 1903 when they were excavating ancient ruins in the city of Susa in southwestern Iran.

Scholars soon realized that the language was one of the four oldest scripts known to mankind, along with Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and geometric script. The Elamite writing system used the Bronze Age writing system in the late third and early second millennium BCE.

The characters were named "Linear Elamite". But, since the discovery, experts have failed to read the diamonds and squares, or understand what they mean. Only a few characters can be clearly explained.

Silver cups provide clues to the ancient writing system

Now French archaeologist François Desset and his team believe they have partially deciphered the ancient text. They used eight silver cups as the basis for the decoding, with many symbols of the Elamite Linear Writing System carved into the metal.

“The cups have been in the possession of a private collector for a long time and have only recently been made available to researchers,” said Dessett, who works at the University of Tehran in Iran and the Archéorient Research Laboratory in Lyon. , in France. DW.

One of the silver cups that Desset and his team used to decipher the Elamite script

How are ancient texts deciphered?

A common way to decipher unknown characters is to compare identical or similar texts in different writing systems. In this way, experts can deduce the characters of the unknown text from the known character.

As an example, let's imagine we have a German text with the Chinese translation just below.

The words "King Karl" appear often in the German version. If we now find sequences of characters in the Chinese version that repeat in the same places, this indicates the correct characters of "King Karl" in Chinese.

The Desset research team used this exact method with the silver cups.

The cups contain inscriptions of kings and rulers in the same language (Elamite), but in two different writing systems: cuneiform, already known in Mesopotamia, and the unknown Elamite script.

Step by step, the team was able to understand the characters through this method.

“The cups were the key we needed to decipher the writing,” Dessett said. “As a result, we can now read 72 characters. »

The researcher said that only four characters are still unknown.


The real surprise, Desset said, is the nature of the writing system. Scholars have speculated that the Elamite script is a mixture of phonetic writing and recording.

Phonemes, or “phonograms,” are individual letters and syllables and represent the sound of speech. Logographic characters, or “word tags,” represent an entire word, much like our numeric “1” stands for “one.”

“At the end of my analysis, I found the Elamite script to be purely phonetic,” Dessett said. “It makes it the oldest of its kind in the world – and changes our view of the whole evolution of writing. »

Elamite script on a clay tablet.

This tablet with Elamite linear writings from Susa dates back to the second half of the third millennium BC.

Decoding is subject to criticism

But in the research community, Dessett's finding drew some criticism.

“Until clear evidence is presented, the Elamite linear script will not be fully deciphered,” Michael Mader told DW. Mader is a linguist at the University of Bern and scientific director of the Swiss Alice Cooper Society for the Decipherment of Ancient Writing Systems. So far, he said, there are only 15 letters with a known pronunciation and 19 reasonable suggestions.

"Desset's work will likely add more characters to the list of suggestions," Mader said. “But, until we know the function and pronunciation of all the letters, we won't know for sure. »

Mäder also has "significant doubts" about Desset's statement that the text is purely phonemic: "Mathematical analyzes show that the Elamite linear writing system consists of only 70% phonetic characters," Mäder said. The rest added lyrics tags.

Whether or not Desset is right remains an open question for now. In October, experts on ancient writing systems will meet at a conference in Norway to discuss the discovery.

This article was originally written in German.